The Rise and Fall of Peach Blossom

Reception of Chinese Copper Red Glazed Porcelain in Nineteenth-Century U.S.

Photo for The Rise and Fall of

“Three-String” Vase, 1710-1722 Jingdezhen ware, China H: 7 15/16 x Diam: 3 3/16 in. (20.2 x 8.1 cm) Walters Art Museum

Monday, November 28, 2022
4:00 PM - 5:30 PM
Live via Zoom

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The Baltimore tycoon and art collector William Walters (1820-1894) found himself in the center of a publicity storm after he purchased the “peach blossom vase,” a piece of eighteenth-century Chinese porcelain in copper red glaze, from the auction of late Mary Morgan’s collection on March 8, 1886. He paid $18,000 for the vase and made it the most expensive Chinese porcelain in the country, but it left a permanent scar on the millionaire’s reputation. For several years the public debated over the actual value of the artifact and Walters’s judgment. As a result, the “peach blossom vase” was never featured in the Walters gallery, and its signature wooden stand was removed from the illustration of the vase in the catalogue of the Walters collection published in 1899.
This lecture uses the story of the peach blossom vase to contextualize the establishment and decline of the appreciation of China’s copper red glazed porcelains in the late nineteenth century. It first outlines the gendered dimension of ceramic collecting in the West, which began as an affluent women’s pastime in the seventeenth century and gradually evolved into an intellectual practice suitable for a gentleman in the nineteenth century. The transition curiously overlaps with the change of collecting taste from blue-and-white to monochrome porcelains. Among the various colors, copper red glaze stood out as a particularly gendered one for its rich association with a woman’s skin and makeup. As a result, regardless of its original function as stationary on a Chinese gentleman's desk, the “peach blossom vase” was assigned a new, feminine identity due to its color and female owner. The feminine label was deeply fixed into the public's minds that even a reputable male collector like William Walters had to concede. A series of glass wares and cosmetic products inspired by this vase in the following years that catered to female consumers further evidenced such gendered perception. Although the sensation of copper red glazed ware was short-lived, it is a critical example of the complex gender and racial factors in the historiography of Asian art collecting in the Gilded Age.

About the speaker:
Ying-chen Peng studies the gendered dimension of the making, moving, and collecting of objects and space through the global and intersectional lens. Before joining the American University, she worked at the National Palace Museum and the Academia Sinica, both in Taiwan, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a pre-doctoral research fellow and received her Ph.D. degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2014. Peng published extensively on imperial women’s engagement in late Qing court art. Her forthcoming book, Artful Subversion: Empress Dowager Cixi’s Image Making, will be published by Yale University Press in the spring of 2023. Currently, she is conducting research for two book-length projects. One investigates the gendered connoisseurship of Chinese porcelain in nineteenth-century U.S. and England. The other examines the history of jeans and the garment’s influence on the representation of femininity and masculinity across East Asia in the twentieth century.

Sponsor(s): Center for Chinese Studies